Chris Blackhurst: A nation of shopkeepers got to taste the difference when Justin King took charge of Sainsbury's

Midweek View: He was in the vanguard of the new breed of egalitarian bosses: out went the pinstripes - titles were banished

As he steps down as chief executive of Sainsbury's, the supermarket group he has led for a decade, Justin King is entitled to pat himself on the back. Job well done.

Okay, his final results are not the sexiest he hoped to have produced. But they're still a darned sight better than anything coming out of Tesco or Morrisons at the moment.

Time flies, and I have to pinch myself: is it really 10 years since I first met King in Sainsbury's spanking new Holborn Circus headquarters? They seemed to go hand-in-hand, the youthful CEO with a seemingly permanent smile and an easy manner, and the gleaming steel and glass, open-plan offices. The contrast between this and the previous era, where visitors to the old head office were greeted by the sight of limousines and chauffeurs waiting to bear one of the senior members of the Sainsbury family away, was stark.

King was in the vanguard of a new breed of egalitarian British retailing bosses (and as we're a nation of shopkeepers still, a new breed of British corporate chief). Disappearing were the toffs, with their urbane, patriarchal bearing. In their place was a new breed – non-boarding school, from the grammar and the comprehensive.

Out went the heavy pinstripes and double cuffs, in came light two-piece suits and light shirts. With a tie or without? They didn't mind – it depended on how they felt.

Titles were banished. No longer did you hear "Mr", "Sir" or "Lord" but a first name. So it became "Justin" at Sainsbury's, "Terry" at Tesco, "Richard" at Boots, and "Allan" and "Adam" at the Post Office.

One of King's first acts on taking over was to implore shoppers and staff around the branches to "tell Justin" of their ideas and problems. Such a move is taken for granted now, but back then it was still regarded as a bit too matey and touchy-feely for the old guard's liking. King was an Everyman, to be one of the workers, to talk numbers with the City, to hob-nob with the media, and to lobby at Westminster.

It was no use King sitting atop a glass tower in central London. He made it his business to get out there, tour the shops, wander down the aisles, check out the opposition, even man the tills and stack shelves, to talk to the staff, customers and suppliers. Above all, to listen, and to respond.

He took over from Sir Peter Davis. Memories are short where the City is concerned, and it's forgotten now that Davis was regarded as the great hope for Sainsbury's when he became chief executive in 2000. Sainsbury's was on its knees, humbled by the aggressive, all-conquering Tesco. Davis, a public-school smoothie who eschewed university and went into an engineering firm at 17, was seen in the City as just the sort of person Sainsbury's required.

Part of Davis's popularity stemmed from the fact that when he quit engineering and went into marketing, and rose through the ranks at Sainsbury's to be within touching distance of the summit, he was told he would never make it. The CEO post went to David Sainsbury, and Davis left, to run Reed, then Prudential.

Meanwhile, back at Sainsbury's, David had handed over the reins to Dino Adriano. It was a disastrous period for the group – the once seemingly invincible Sainsbury's had to concede the number one slot to Tesco.

Davis, who had been cold-shouldered by his former colleagues after leaving, not once invited back for any kind of Sainsbury's social gathering, was asked if he'd liked to rejoin – in the job he was told he would never get.

He rang the changes: launching the Taste the Difference range; revamping advertising; bringing in Jamie Oliver; cutting prices; improving distribution, an area where Tesco had been making huge inroads; offloading non-core activities such as DIY with Homebase; pulling out of North America; going into clothes and discounting of electrical goods.

That's quite a list, but it was not enough. Sainsbury's slipped to third in food retailing behind Tesco and Asda, and faced being squeezed by Morrisons, which had absorbed Safeway.

Davis, a genial, intelligent, decent (too decent, said his critics) man, fell out of favour with the City. Progress was felt to be too slow. He moved up to chairman, and eventually out completely, but not before he chose his successor as CEO: Justin King, the head of Marks & Spencer's food division. The Tigger-like King picked up where Davis left off, but at a much faster pace. Sainsbury's had three profit warnings in 2004. King's reaction was to launch a three-year turnaround plan, "to make Sainsbury's great again".

As well as writing to a million customers and staff, asking them what they wanted and what could be improved, King cut costs (750 jobs went at the head office alone), scrapped a £3bn IT project that was going nowhere, speeded up the branch-opening programme, especially in convenience stores, redoubled the pursuit of quality with the Taste the Difference and Be Good To Yourself lines, renewed Oliver's contract (after there was much speculation that he would be dropped), and switched the advertising slogan from "Making life taste better" (or "bitter" as the cynics claimed), to "Try something new today".

King took Sainsbury's, which had become a byword for inefficiency – for not having a product that someone wanted, when they wanted it, and consequently losing that customer to Tesco, which did have it – and gave it a good shaking. Whereas Tesco went down the competitive, slick, well-organised route – arguably to the detriment of the shopping experience – Sainsbury's somehow pulled off the trick of boosting its logistics without losing intimacy. It's a friendlier, warmer place to shop than Tesco. And, King has ensured, its premium products match Waitrose and M&S for quality.

He deserves the plaudits. For beginning the transformation, Davis merits recognition, too.

The baton now passes to Mike Coupe, King's long-time lieutenant. Can Coupe cope? Apologies for the rampant alliteration, but it is the question that the City wants to know.

My bet is that he can. Sainsbury's management is handily placed, not beset by the distracting in-fighting engulfing the higher echelons of Tesco and Morrisons. They can focus on further improvements to an express store network that is already humming. There's all to play for in online, where King has left them in good shape – although in click-and-collect groceries Sainsbury's lags far behind Asda and Tesco. Brand Match came late in King's reign, but is a strong initiative, at last making Sainsbury'sCoupe must push for profitability. When King took charge, Sainsbury's operating margin was a lowly 2.15 per cent. He took it to 3.56 per cent. But that remains some distance behind Sainsbury's rivals, and King can be accused, rightly, of putting volume ahead of margin. Currently, by contrast, Tesco's operating margin is 4.14 per cent.

He inherits, however, a chain that is in far better health than when King took over. King deserves enormous credit – even if, frighteningly, his arrival only seems like yesterday.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Recruitment Genius: Compliance Assistant

£13000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Pension Specialist was established ...

Ashdown Group: Market Research Executive

£23000 - £26000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Market Research Executive...

Recruitment Genius: Technical Report Writer

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Technical Report Writer is re...

MBDA UK Ltd: Indirect Procurement Category Manager

Competitive salary & benefits!: MBDA UK Ltd: MBDA UK LTD Indirect Procurement...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Why the league system no longer measures up

League system no longer measures up

Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness